Is Coca-Cola Propping Up Swaziland's Dictator?
January 28, 2012
Bill Berkowitz / Buzzflash & Truthout
Since its inception in 1886, Coca-Cola has had more slogans than the US has had presidents. Back in the early 1960s, the catchphrase was, "Things go better with Coke." In Swaziland these days, the only person that the multibillion-dollar beverage company is making things "go better" for is King Mswati III, Africa's last absolute monarch. For the rest of the Swazi people, the company has come to represent misery and abject poverty.
(January 26, 2012) -- Since its inception in 1886, Coca-Cola has had more slogans than the US has had presidents. In recent years, "Can't Beat the Real Thing," "Life tastes good," "Make it real," and "Live on the Coke Side of Life," have all become part of our advertorial lives. Back in the early 1960s, the catchphrase was, "Things go better with Coke." In Swaziland these days, the only person that the multibillion-dollar beverage company is making things "go better" for is King Mswati III, Africa's last absolute monarch. For the rest of the Swazi people, the company has come to represent misery and abject poverty.
According to Swazi Media Commentary, Coca-Cola, which owns a concentrate-manufacturing plant in Swaziland, "is said to be so large in Swaziland that it accounts for 40 percent of the kingdom's GDP, but it is said to be exempt from paying full taxes."
Now, human rights activists are calling upon Coca-Cola to do the right thing: withdraw its support for a notorious dictator.
"Coca-Cola also has an impact on the international standing of Swaziland's economy," Swazi Media Commentary pointed out. "The money generated by Coca-Cola is what largely accounts for the kingdom being classified as a 'lower-middle income developing country' (and therefore not eligible for certain types of international aid), even though seven in ten of Swaziland's one-million population live in abject poverty, earning less than one US dollar a day."
Swaziland is a former British protectorate that gained independence in 1968.
In 2010, The Hindu, a newspaper based in India, reported that, "Swaziland's autocracy is based on the 'Tinkhundla' system through which royally-sponsored traditional leaders dispense patronage and exercise control at local level. The system is celebrated by the government as an authentic product of traditional Swazi culture, and those who question it are routinely denounced as 'not Swazi enough.' But Swazis themselves reap no benefits from it."
The Hindu pointed out that "While 70 per cent of the population live on less than a dollar a day and 25 per cent rely on food aid, members of the royal family indulge themselves each day to the tune of some $67,000."
While he isn't in the same wealth league as some other royals -- most notably King Bhumibol Adulyadej of? Thailand ($35 billion), Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed ?Al Nahyan of the UAE ($23 billion), or even Prince Hans-Adam II von und zu Liechtenstein of? Liechtenstein ($5 billion), King Mswati III's wealth was estimated to be at $200 million, according to a 2008 Forbes magazine report.
Mswati III (born Makhosetive Dlamini on April 19, 1968), who has a reported 13 wives, and, according to the Guardian Global Development Network, "hosts an annual dance where he can choose a new bride from tens of thousands of bare-breasted virgins," has made several pilgrimages to Coke's Atlanta headquarters.
According to The Hindu, "Mswati [III] (who was educated at the expensive Sherborne school in England) is also head of a multi-million dollar conglomerate, set up in 1968 by royal charter, which owns a significant slice of nearly every major Swazi business and industry -- sugar, mobile phones, mines, media, tourism. Theoretically, Mswati holds the conglomerate's assets in trust for the nation, but the fund, like all royal assets, is shielded from public scrutiny."
The US Department of State's "2009 Human Rights Report: Swaziland," pointed out that Mswati III "has ultimate authority over the cabinet, legislature, and judiciary.... There was a prime minister and a partially elected parliament, but political power remained largely with the king and his traditional advisors, the most influential of whom remained the queen mother....
"Human rights problems included inability of citizens to change their government; extrajudicial killings by security forces; mob killings; police use of torture, beatings, and excessive force on detainees; police impunity; arbitrary arrests and lengthy pretrial detention; arbitrary interference with privacy and home; restrictions on freedoms of speech and press and harassment of journalists; restrictions on freedoms of assembly, association, and movement; prohibitions on political activity and harassment of political activists; discrimination and violence against women; child abuse; trafficking in persons; societal discrimination against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual community; discrimination against mixed-race and white citizens; harassment of labor leaders; restrictions on worker rights; and child labor."
The Hindu reported that, "Six in 10 Swazis are engaged in subsistence farming, mostly on communal land owned in trust by the King, whose family also directly own a major share of the remaining 'privately-owned' land. Forced labour is commonplace. Under Swazi Administration Order No. 6 of 1998, it is a duty of Swazis to obey orders from local chiefs to participate in compulsory works (which may include construction and agricultural labour or even weeding the gardens in Mswati's palaces). There are severe penalties for those who refuse.
".... Compounding poverty and repression, Swaziland now suffers the world's highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection -- perhaps as much as 40 per cent of the adult population and 42 per cent of all expectant mothers. Swaziland has the highest annual rate of death from AIDS, about 10,000 a year or an annual cull of one per cent of the population. Life expectancy has plummeted and is probably now as low as anywhere in the world. Fifteen per cent of households are headed by orphaned children."
Several human rights and solidarity organizations are now calling on the company to sever its relations with Swaziland. "Coca-Cola must know they're doing business with the wrong people," Swaziland Democracy Campaign spokesperson Mary Pais Da Silva told the UK's Guardian newspaper. "At the end of the day it doesn't benefit the economy in any way. Their profits don't help the average Swazi, while the king is getting richer by the day. Nobody should do business with the regime in Swaziland."
Coca-Cola is not a new arrival to Africa. According to Tara Lohan, a senior editor at AlterNet, Coke has been doing business in various countries on the continent since 1929, but it "has not reached total domination yet."
Lohan: "The reason for this is that while there are many countries in Africa with growing middle classes, it's also a continent with extreme poverty, scarce or unclean water sources, hunger, political instability, and war. Coke intends to spend $12 billion in the next ten years there and what do Africans get in return? A product that will use vast amounts of water, create more waste, and offer people no nutritional value."
Commenting on Coke's sordid history as laid out in Michael Blanding's book The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World's Favorite Soft Drink, Lohan said that she is "extremely wary of the company's advances.
Blanding's book details Coke's history of anti-union activity in Central and South America, allegations of its fraternization with paramilitaries who murdered bottling plant workers, the effects of marketing to kids in schools, and the wake of environmental catastrophes the company left behind in places like India where Coke has drained and polluted drinking water. If that's what Coke has in store for Africa, then it looks like the continent is getting the raw end of the deal."
Sherree Shereni, spokeswoman for the Coca-Cola central Africa franchise, denied that the King was receiving "any profits or dividends from Conco Swaziland (Coca-Cola's concentrate production plant)."
She added: "Coca-Cola is not involved with political agenda of any country in which it does business. Coca-Cola's reputation is built on the quality of its brands, the highest standards of manufacturing practices, the welfare and safety of its employees and adherence to local and international laws as applicable in any country where Coca-Cola does business."
Lucky Lukhele, a spokesman for Swaziland Solidarity Network, said: "Coca-Cola should find a way of directing the profits to the people of Swaziland. They should start supporting the pro-democracy movement."
Lukhele added: "Many supported the people of South Africa. There is no such thing as neutral ground -- you're for or against. The king is looting and destroying the economy. So either they support the people or they go into the dustbin of history along with the king."
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